Paola the Populist

The design universe revolves around a woman who loves Q-tips, Post-its, and The Twilight Zone.

Paola Antonelli doesn't look much like Norma Rae, and New York's Museum of Modern Art isn't exactly a Southern sweatshop. But when Antonelli, now curator of architecture and design, joined MoMA's staff in 1994, one of her first acts was to stage a tiny, old-labor-style insurrection. Upon entering her new office, she found a clunky PC with big floppy disks squatting on her desk. Design crime! So she summoned her courage and fired off a two-page memo explaining why she simply had to have a Mac. Soon, other staffers had signed on for the struggle. "It was like a union," Antonelli recalls with a laugh. And Paola prevailed. "My highest peak," she says, "was when the director of MoMA called and said, 'I'm thinking of getting an Apple.'"

When it comes to design, Antonelli is an absolutist, a passionate populist. "Ugly design should be rejected," she insists, "just like nonfunctional design is rejected, just like nonenvironmentally conscious design should be rejected. It's a value." For all that, Antonelli is no design snob. Her office today may be padded with gray and red Teppo Asikainen Swell Soundwave felt panels and furnished with one of the original 1968 Sacco beanbag chairs, but she's a self-described fashion "bottom-feeder," as likely to wear accessories by Target as by Gucci. She loves eating at the bar in restaurants, driving fast on L.A. freeways, and watching Tivo'd episodes of The Twilight Zone. And she's deeply ambivalent about the recent elevation of design to the level of fine art, preferring to celebrate workaday marvels such as the Q-tip, the Post-it Note, or the wire whisk—all documented in her 2005 book, Humble Masterpieces.

Unlike more comprehensive design museums like the Cooper-Hewitt or London's Victoria and Albert, MoMA's mission is not to record the history of design, but to select objects that are deemed best of breed. The design collection is relatively small—only about 4,000 objects. Each acquisition must pass scrutiny by the staff of design curators plus the larger acquisitions committee of about two dozen experts. And you can't buy or talk your way into MoMA. A donated item, unless specifically requested, will be returned unopened. There's no affirmative action: The curatorial team doesn't worry about equal representation of nationalities, or genders, or product categories—some years' choices may include many chairs, Finns, or women; other years', none. A product's commercial success alone won't earn it a spot (sorry, Singing Bass). The museum champions an innovative spirit, the potential for cultural impact, aesthetic significance, and an affinity with an evolving idea of modern design. Period.

MoMA's approval may therefore be the single biggest prize in the commercial design world. From her perch, Antonelli has the power to make or break designs and designers alike. And no one on the other end of the process is confused about what acceptance into MoMA's collection means for their businesses. "It's the best award you can get," says Jan Vingerhoets, executive vice president of furniture maker Alessi USA. "Like winning an Oscar for a movie." Don Goeman, Herman Miller's EVP of product design and development, agrees: "A MoMA endorsement is the best endorsement of design," he says. "The architecture and design community takes note of that, and it reinforces the brand in many ways that are not always obvious."

Antonelli discovered Herman Miller's Aeron chair, for example, before it ever hit the showroom floor and brought it to the acquisitions committee "when it was just out of the oven and still warm." (This prompted Philip Johnson to bait her by asking, "Paola, why do you want to acquire that chair? It is ugly.'") She was curating her first show, "Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design," and was impressed with the flexible mesh, called the Pellicle, in the chair's stretchy sides and back. When the Aeron was rolled out publicly, editorial coverage invariably cited its place in the collection. So Antonelli is not naive about the influence a MoMA nod can have in the marketplace. Nor does she imagine that the marketplace is beneath her. Unlike her colleagues, she would like to see the museum go back to including the prices and sources of the objects on display, just as they did in the 1930s and 1940s. And she has a fierce respect for manufacturing's role in the process. "Right now, there's a rather Manichaean view, as if the commercial side were dirty," she says. "I completely disagree. The commercial aspect of objects is something beautiful."

Says Murray Moss, the proprietor of Moss, the legendary New York and L.A. design shops: "She's more of a public advocate for design than anyone I've ever experienced in a position like hers."

Apart from scouting objects for the museum's collection, Antonelli curates MoMA special exhibits, distilling the impressions and discoveries she amasses over a year's worth of travel, reading, Web surfing, shopping, conferences, and meetings with designers worldwide. In a typical year, she logs eight serious trips, not counting jaunts within the United States. Whenever possible, she likes to wander aimlessly through the grittier areas of whatever city she's in. "My idea of a great vacation," she says, "is to be in a city that I don't know, on a bus, with a window seat."

Antonelli has a knack for bottling the zeitgeist. "My job is to give a simultaneous portrait, filtered and synthesized, of how important design is, and what it's doing today that's so amazing and deserves to be seen and understood." In 2005, she mounted a show, conceived before September 11, called "Safe: Design Takes on Risk." It assembled 300 products and prototypes meant to protect human beings against perceived current dangers. (The Economist called it a perfect evocation of "the spirit of its time and place.") Her next exhibition, "Design and the Elastic Mind," will open in February and explore design's response to the dramatic changes in scale that people must navigate every day, from the view of an entire city on Google Earth to a street map on our mobile phone, from intimate, one-on-one conversations to the vast reach of social networks. The exhibition, she says, will include virtual things, like interfaces, and real things, like chairs, that deal with this constant, jarring shift in perspective.

Antonelli never planned to wind up in a museum. As a child, her ambitions were more cosmic. Born in Milan in 1963, she grew up wanting to be an astronaut. At age 9, she wrote of her plans to NASA, which responded with a letter telling her to study science and to take good care of her teeth. At 12, she got her first cavity and figured her space career was over. As a teen, she worked after school in the PR office at Armani, then studied economics at the university. After two years, she switched to architecture at Milan Polytechnic. When she tried to establish her own practice, she says, "I was a disaster. Architects have to be single- minded, completely convinced of their calling. I need to get things done faster, so writing and curating was better for me."

There's this view that the commercial side is dirty, Antonelli says. The commercial aspect of objects is something beautiful.

She joined the Italian architecture magazine Domus, then taught design for three and a half years at UCLA. Tiring, finally, of the trek between Los Angeles and Milan, she opened a copy of I.D. magazine and saw an ad for the position of associate curator, specializing in architecture and design, at MoMA. She wrangled an interview with then-curator Terry Riley at Les Deux Magots in Paris, and landed the job—her first at a museum.

The learning curve was steep. "I had never worked in a conventional office. I was completely green at politics," she says. But all that faded after The New York Times gave her 1995 "Mutant Materials" show a warm review.

Now, Antonelli says, she wants to use her influence to promote design globally. Her hope, she says, is that strong examples should be as common here in her adopted country as they are in Italy, where you find them at any corner store. "People in the United States should understand that beauty does not cost more than ugliness," she insists. "Beauty is everybody's right."

Feedback: tischler@fastcompany.com

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